The Driftless Reader: a literature of place

Today, we publish THE DRIFTLESS READER, a remarkable anthology of writings about the ancient and unique unglaciated region that encompasses southwestern Wisconsin and adjacent Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. More than eighty excerpts from Native people, explorers, scientists, historians, farmers, songwriters, journalists, novelists, and poets, augmented by paintings, photographs, maps, and pictographs, comprise the anthology. In this post Keefe Keeley, coeditor of the volume, writes about the challenges and rewards of creating the Reader.

It never ceases to amaze me that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea. When I see the exposed bluff faces and roadside cuts stratified in layers like haphazard stacks of books, I almost can’t believe that sandstone and limestone is formed of ancient beaches and shells of sea creatures. Lower layers, older oceans, hundreds of millions of years old . . .

Assembling The Driftless Reader didn’t take hundreds of millions of years, but it took a few.  And geology was just the first chapter. Co-editor Curt Meine and I had our stacks of books and papers about Driftless plants and animals, waterways, early humans who hunted mastodons here, the mounds built by their descendants some ten thousand years later, and the sweep of history from fur trading to organic farming, all the way to a fly fisherman musing about the future of the Driftless area.

The publisher told us we had to fit it all in a hundred thousand words.  So we axed Steinbeck.  We abridged Leopold.  We groaned over Twain.  We scoured our bluffs of books, and we gave thanks for poets as we struck gold in the rich thrift of Driftless verse.

Giving fair representation across the roughly 10,000 square miles of the region was another important, if quixotic, goal. In seeking material for the volume, Curt and I crisscrossed the region to meet with friends and colleagues from Winona to Dubuque, Decorah to Baraboo, and a host of points therein. This was one of the most enjoyable phases of the book: broadening our familiarity with the region and making connections with authors, poets, artists, scientists, musicians and others interested in vital expression of our shared landscape and interwoven communities.  I’m looking forward to revisiting some of these places, and new ones, on our tour of events, as we bookend the project by sharing it with others interested in giving voice to our emerging bioregional identity.

Black Hawk. Painting by George Catlin.

Although we searched far and wide, perhaps it is no surprise that Crawford County, Wisconsin, where I grew up, gave rise to some of the most personally meaningful voices of the volume. Chief Black Hawk recounts old men and little children perishing of hunger as his band was pursued through this “rugged country,” the rest of them marching on to what became known as the Bad Axe Massacre. Pearl Swiggum shared her love for living a whole life on Stump Ridge. Ben Logan grew up on a farm, went on to travel the world, returned via remembrances, and eventually came home. Laura Sherry wrote of her memories in Old Prairie du Chien, a book of poetry published in Paris in 1931. Clifford Simak left for a life elsewhere, but his award-winning stories depict alien travelers from other worlds navigating the place he first called home.  And John Muir (although technically the letter we include in the Reader is one he wrote to a friend in Crawford County) described exploring bluffs just across the Mississippi River in Clayton County, Iowa, where my mother grew up.

I wasn’t always so enamored with this place. In my teenage years I thought of the Driftless largely in terms of escape. I wouldn’t say I disliked it. I would say . . . I liked it. But I felt the hillsides hemmed in my ambitions, and sometimes I perceived a shadow of stigma for being a child of long-haired back-to-the-land transplants in Crawford County. As soon as I came of age, I took every opportunity to study and travel afar. In the Reader, others echo my meditations on escape from the confining coulees and isolated ridgetops of the Driftless: Hamlin Garland, Rick Harsch, Bob Wolf.

Eventually, I traveled just about as far away as possible. In rural India, a farmer lent me his copy of Kentuckian Wendell Berry’s book, The Unsettling of America. The situation in his country, this farmer told me, was the same as in the United States: many young people leaving rural areas, family farms becoming scarce, and small-town economies crumbling. Soon after, I moved back near my family, resolved to buck the trend, put down roots, and become a hometown hero.  I lasted about four months, then I was back to traveling.

Before the Heat of the Day. Painting by Kathie Wheeler of Hmong farmers in the Driftless region.

Over the next few years, I bounced between working on farms near home and shoestring trips abroad.  I’d like to say my fresh eyes returning each time helped me realize how remarkable the Driftless is, but who knows?  Maybe I would more truly appreciate the place if I had continued to put down roots throughout the seasons.

I’ve lived in Madison for a spell now, just outside the Driftless. It can be disorienting, to be in an urban environment, pursuing advanced degrees and other accolades of our era, while society seems to teeter, ever more polarized, along the lines of Berry’s Unsettling warning-cum-prophecy. Sometimes I feel like a moth entranced by the charm of the city lights. I am more at home without streetlamps, navigating my way among the fireflies and stars, open roads, and impromptu conversations with gas station acquaintances. Part of me fears that those open roads and rural conviviality will disappear as too many people from “the city” find the Driftless charming and proceed to blanket the land, as the glaciers never could, with floodlit backyard patios.

Farmed Frame. Machinery parts sculpture by David Wells, photography by Katrin Talbot.

My hope is that The Driftless Reader will serve as a sort of antidote to the poisonous polarity fed by fears like these, prompting us instead to fall in love with whatever place we’re in, and to make those shared affections a basis for conviviality and community with others there. In the closing selection of the book, Kevin Koch likens such an antidote to a vow of stability taken by the monks of New Melleray Abbey outside Dubuque. Rather than, as the monks vow, staying forever in the same locale, Kevin suggests for the rest of us, “a call to be in the fields, in the rain, the mud, and the clay no matter where we’re at, no matter for how long. Our dirty hands, wet faces and backs, and sore feet are testimony to our contact and connectedness to the earth that birthed us and will receive us back again.”

Creating this book has allowed me to cultivate connectedness with and within the Driftless, to establish some stability amid the whiplash of modern mobility. Seeing the place through others’ eyes, things quotidian and odd have become more remarkable, personal, and even beloved. Thoreau celebrated redwing blackbirds prevailing on the Mississippi. Robin Kimmerer puzzled out the patterns of mosses on Kickapoo River cliffs. Amish neighbors, normally aloof from politics, rallied via public letter the outcry against proposed low-level military training flights. Truman Lowe, sculpting aluminum lattice into a thunderbird form, linked his Ho-Chunk clan with the mounds that grace the region.  Kathe Davis, who I’m sad to say passed away recently, wrote in the closing line of her poem Things I Love about Where I Am, “All the long-haired men.”  When I was a teenager, my dad’s long hair was a source of untold embarrassment; now, I see things differently.

I hope the rich array of voices in this book can likewise give others a chance to see the Driftless, and any all-too-familiar or otherwise disregarded place, in a new light. For starters, consider that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea.

Keefe Keeley

Keefe Keeley, a native of the Kickapoo Valley, is co-executive director of the Savanna Institute, working with farmers to diversify and perennialize agriculture in the Upper Midwest. He is pursuing a doctoral degree at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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